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Authors: Jane Lotter

Tags: #Fiction, #Humorous, #Literary, #Contemporary Women

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BOOK: The Bette Davis Club
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“I’m sorry,” I say. “I—”


Run off
!

she repeats, as though informing me of a serious drainage problem. “It’s a cliché, I know, the disappearing bride. But then, nobody will ever accuse Georgia of originality. Not to mention, cold feet run in the family, don’t they?”

This last remark is accompanied by a slight smirk, a touch of half-sibling superiority. That’s because it’s a reference—a dig, actually—to my own wedding day, long ago. It’s true that I left my fiancé, Finn Coyle, standing alone and embarrassed in front of the judge. It’s true that I jilted Finn.

But that was over thirty years ago and under very different circumstances. At any rate, too many years have passed for me to rise to the bait. I ignore Charlotte’s question and instead submit a couple of my own.

“But why did Georgia leave?” I say. “Doesn’t she love the boy?”

Charlotte looks blank, as if I’d just asked her to recite the Pledge of Allegiance. “Boy?” she says.

“The groom. Doesn’t she love him?”

“Oh! You didn’t meet Tully, did you?”

“Not yet.”

“Well, he’s unique. He’s . . .” She pauses, as though she can’t quite remember what it is that’s unique about Georgia’s fiancé, Tully. Then again, perhaps I heard wrong. Perhaps Charlotte isn’t saying Tully’s unique. Perhaps she’s telling me he’s a eunuch.

At last she throws up her hands in exasperation, as though I’m a willful child who refuses to cooperate. “Tully has a very high IQ,” she says, as if that explains everything.

I can’t help thinking that, in Charlotte’s world, IQ probably stands for Icky Quotient.

She picks up the decanter. “More?”

“Why not?” I say. “It’s a specious occasion.”

She attempts a smile, but it ends up a little frown. She refills our glasses, and we perch in awkward silence a few moments, imbibing Donald’s excellent port.

“Here’s the story, Margo,” Charlotte finally says. “I have a proposal for you. Ha-ha. Bad choice of words. Proposition is what I mean. I want you to go after Georgia and bring her back. Right away. Today, in fact.”

Clearly, Charlotte is in the early stages of mad cow disease. Any minute, she’ll begin crawling round on the carpet, mooing like a Guernsey.

“Are you
completely
gone?” I say. “I’m not chasing after some little popsie—sorry—some confused young person who doesn’t know her own mind. Can’t you hire a private detective or someone?”

“No, I can’t. There isn’t time, and there’s nobody in this backstabbing town I trust. I want a family member to go, someone I can rely on. You’re the only family I have. There’s no one else.” She says this last not with warmth and affection, but more in the defeated tone people use when they look in the refrigerator and realize they’re out of pretty much everything.

“It’s bad enough,” Charlotte says, “that the entire film community will go to bed gossiping about what’s happened here today. But if the news media and tabloids catch up with Georgia before we do, it’ll be a public relations disaster. The paparazzi will be snapping those awful photos, interviewing busboys, digging through garbage cans . . .”

What of it? Charlotte’s problems are not mine, and I have no intention of pursuing Georgia. As Charlotte drones on, my mind drifts and I find myself distracted by a bowl of cashews. I reach for a handful of nuts—

“Dammit!” Charlotte shrieks.

I jump, dropping the cashews back into the bowl.

“I need damage control!”

I watch as Charlotte again tries the yoga thing: Breathe in, breathe out. This time she has some success. A little calmer now, a new thought comes to her. “Do you know who Tully’s ex-stepfather is?” she asks.

“Yes, as a matter of fact,” I say. “Malcolm Belvedere, the studio head. We met out on the lawn.”

She raises the penciled arches that pass for her eyebrows. “No kidding? What did you two talk about?”

“England, Charles Dickens, and the American cinema,” I say, exaggerating the tenor of the actual conversation just a tad. While she’s taking this in, I decide to add a zinger. “I think you could say we hit it off. He more or less invited me to the Hamptons.”

“Well, well.” She again drums her fingers on the sofa. “The men always did go for you. But if you fool around with Malcolm, it’ll have to be on the side. There’ll be hell to pay if his wife finds out.”

“He’s married?” I say. This catches me unawares, and I hear my voice grow uncertain. “I thought he was . . .”

I hesitate, trying to find the words to express whatever it was I had thought earlier when I was flirting with Malcolm. “That is, I got the impression he was divorced from Tully’s mother.”

“Well, he is. No, wait. She died. Oh, I can’t remember. All I know is, she’s not here. And anyway, Malcolm’s remarried several times since.”

Amused, I suppose, at my ignorance regarding Malcolm’s marital status, Charlotte laughs. “Margo, sweet Margo. Daddy’s fave. Even in middle age, you’ve kept your girlish innocence. But let me tell you something, kid. When it comes to wealthy, powerful men, they’re
all
married. Malcolm hires people to promote his films, but he pays those same people to keep his private life out of the media. He never had children of his own, so he’s sensitive about matters concerning his ex-stepson. I don’t know why, but he has a soft spot for Tully.” She glances down at the floor, as though trying to envision one human being having a soft spot for another.

“Look,” I say, “I’m sorry Georgia’s gone missing. I’m sorry if it’s an emotional hardship for you or Malcolm or anybody at all. But I fail to see how it concerns me.”

“Well, it does,” she says. “It will. Let me circle back. First of all, did you know Georgia’s hoping to cut a movie deal?”

“Really? As an actress?”

“No. Yes. Sort of.” She spreads her hands. “What I mean is, her acting career didn’t exactly gel, so she redesigned herself, widened her range with a completely new concept. She’s become a total package!”

She beams with pride, as though having revealed some amazing fact about her daughter. High marks in school or a special award for community service. But I don’t have a clue what she’s getting at. What does she mean “total package”? Has Georgia been shipped off via UPS?

Charlotte gives a little shiver of delight. “Georgia’s branched out into screenwriting!” she crows. “Donald and I are so happy, our brag-ability factor has gone through the roof. Even more amazing when you consider that for years her teachers kept telling me she was dyslexic.” She pauses, letting this image sink into both our brains.

“Donald’s representing Georgia’s work,” Charlotte says. “Or he will, when she completes her first script. Georgia’s determined to write a huge hit, something targeted to her own demographic—teens and twenties. Obviously, with her looks there’ll be a part for her as well. That’s what I mean by total packaging.”

I get the feeling I’m expected to comment favorably on all this. I do the best I can. “Sort of a female Ben Affleck?” I say.

She slaps her palm against the sofa. “Exactly! You may or may not know this, Margo, but Hollywood is desperate for product these days. Stories are . . .” She gestures vaguely.

“Hard to come by?” I say.

She shakes her head. “I was going to say superfluous. Nowadays, it’s all marketing, names, computer graphics.”

She gulps down wine, then adds, “Granted, you need a framework, something to hang it all on, a sort of, I don’t know—”

“Plot?”

“You could call it that. But, oh, there’s money to be made with the right concept and the right players, believe you me. Which is where you come in. This drama-queen behavior of Georgia’s. Running away on her wedding day! I won’t accept it. She’s booked to marry Malcolm Belvedere’s former stepson. Can you picture the doors that will open for her when she does that? For all of us?”

“But you already know Malcolm,” I say. “I thought you’ve done five or six pictures with him.”

“Knowing someone powerful,” she says, “isn’t like joining his family. Didn’t you see the
Godfather
movies?
The Sopranos
? In the end, it’s all about family. If Georgia marries Tully, our futures will be set.”

Charlotte laughs as though she just remembered a joke. “Tully adores Georgia!” she says. “And she’s so . . . fond of him. I’m only thinking of everyone’s future happiness.”

And, I imagine, future income.

“Minutes ago,” Charlotte says, “I paid one of those trashy blonde bribesmaids—ha-ha—I mean, bridesmaids—to tell me where my daughter is. Lord, you should’ve seen this member of the wedding. It’s her navel that’s pierced, but the metal has obviously worked its way into her brain.”

“Charlotte, I—”

“In exchange for a used Louis Vuitton travel bag, a discount coupon for Lasik eye surgery, and a voucher good for a two-night stay at the Beverly Hills Hotel, this little stalk of celery ratted out her good friend Georgia. She says Georgia flew to Palm Springs—though whether she’s staying with friends or at a hotel, nobody knows. Well, it’s a small enough burg, Georgia won’t be hard to find. And Georgia won’t have much money; she can’t go far. So now, will you go after her?”

“I’m sorry, but I don’t—”

“I’ll pay you,” she says flatly.

I give a sharp laugh. “Pay me? In what? Used luggage and hotel vouchers?”

“Cash. A lot of it.”

Charlotte knows I need money, but this is too much. No, absolutely not. I will not be sucked in. I will not put myself in the employ of my half sister; I will not make myself the female counterpart to Juven. I’d rather leap from a runaway train; I’d rather disco dance in hell; I’d rather—

“How much?” I ask, surprising even myself with the question. “How much will you pay me?”

“Forty thousand dollars.”

I gape at her, my reluctance to pursue Georgia brought to a screeching halt by the image of the number forty followed by three fat zeroes. But Charlotte misinterprets my hesitation. She thinks I want more money.

“Okay,” she says, holding up her hands. “I don’t have time to negotiate. Fifty thousand, plus expenses.” She belts back more port. Then she picks up the nearly empty decanter and stares at it. It’s crystal. Waterford or Baccarat. Like so many things in this house, it cost, I’m sure, a great deal.

“Fifty large isn’t so bad,” Charlotte muses as she fondles the decanter. “I spent nearly that much on the wedding dress. If you bring even that back, let alone Georgia, I’ll get something out of my investment in you.” She puts down the decanter.

“What if she refuses to see me?” I say.

“That won’t happen.” She pats my knee. “Georgia likes you. You’re her favorite aunt.”

“I’m her only aunt. And she hasn’t laid eyes on me since that time when she was thirteen and the two of you visited New York for about fifteen minutes and we all had lunch at Le Cirque.”

Charlotte laughs in a chilly sort of way. “She thinks you’re fab. She loves the ‘Brit accent’ you do.”

Okay, that was a
really
annoying remark, and I can’t let it go by.

“This is my natural voice, Charlotte,” I say. “It’s not an affectation. I had to pick it up to fit in, to survive the pecking order in that wretched school I was sent to. I was so young when I got packed off to England, when I was . . . banished. After a while, talking like the other girls became a permanent part of me.”

“All right,” she says. “I hear you. Being sent overseas was hard for you, and I’m sorry about it. You probably suffered Post-Dramatic Stress Disorder. Excuse me, I mean Traumatic. But none of that was my fault.”

“No, it wasn’t.” I hesitate, then I plunge in the knife. “It was your mother’s.”

“God, here we go!” Charlotte says. Discussion of Charlotte’s mother has never been a pleasant topic between the two of us. “That was years ago,” she says. “We were children. If you’re going to start . . . well, you’re just wasting time!”

“Wasting time?” I say. “If your mother had done the decent thing and divorced Daddy,
my
mother might still be alive today. My whole life would have turned out differently.”

Silence.

I take out a cigarette and light it, not bothering to ask Charlotte if she minds. She is, after all, the person who gave me my first smoke, back when I was nine years old. I put the pack down on the table.

“Pall Malls!” she says. She picks up the pack and studies it. “I thought you kicked these years ago.”

“Did,” I say, taking a deep drag off my cigarette. “Started up again.”

“When?”

I let out a curl of smoke. “Last year.”

“Oh. You mean because . . .” She clears her throat. “But even so, it’s incredibly unhealthy. It’s practically illegal, isn’t it?”

I don’t answer. I tilt my head back and blow three perfect smoke rings. Something else she taught me to do.

BOOK: The Bette Davis Club
13.18Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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